Brecht, Epic And Courage

Bertolt Brecht was a German poet, playwright and theatre practitioner and is regarded as being one of the greatest 20th century dramatists. He was a principle influencer in the creation of the epic theatre form, as Brecht desired to create a theatre form that appropriately reflected the true nature of society (Counsell, 1996, p.81) that was seperate from Dramatic or Aristotelian theatre (Williams, 1996, p.277). Brecht sought out a new, dialectic theatre form that would allow the audience to react “based on a critical and rational assessment of what they had seen” (Squiers, 2015, p.244). In order to achieve this, Brecht developed two major principles of epic theatre-verfremdungseffekt (the alienation effect) and historicisation. His 1939 play Mother Courage and her Children is considered to be a prime example of epic theatre as it demonstrates multiple characteristics of the theatre form.

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The verfremdungseffekt, also known as the alienation (A-effect) or distancing effect is a key principle of epic theatre (Dickson, 2017). Whereas Aristotelian theatre required spectators to emotionally connect with and relate to the performance, Brecht wanted to constantly remind the audience they were watching theatre through the distancing effect (Davies, 2011, p.185). Instead of requiring the audience to become invested in the plot and characters during a performance, Brecht desired the audience to be constructive critics and observers instead of becoming “the object of emotion and spectacular bombardment” (Drain, 1995, p.78). Alienation is evident in the title of Mother Courage and Her Children which is commonly shortened to just Mother Courage, as it invites direct observations of the character and her actions. The spectator reflects on her motivations and debates whether she her actions are morally justified. This is evident in the text as Mother Courage places greater importance on her job above the protection of her children. The spectator is alienated from the action as they observe Mother Courage’s reaction to Kattrin’s’ death in scene 12. There is an absence of an emotional reaction from Mother Courage, who seems more concerned with whether she can carry her cart by herself that the tragic death of Kattrin, which makes the spectator consider whether such a reaction from a grieving parent is rational.

forcing the reality of capitalism and war to be considered. They should consider whether the title of ‘Mother Courage’ is ironic, and whether “she, as a person, is meant to be admired […] or despised” (Williams pp. 285-286).

Alienation did not only apply to the spectator- Brecht ensured the actor was also detached from their character to allow complete analysis and criticism of the entire performance (Drain, p. 113). If the actors became too invested in the characters, their portrayal could become biased and ruin the alienation effect (ibid). Chinese theatre influenced Brecht to distance the actor and spectator from the characters by having them named after their profession or status (Tatlow, 2001, p.221) such as: Chaplain, Cook and Peasant. The reference to age in certain characters like Young/Older Soldier, Young Man and Old Woman evokes a critical analysis of how age can affect a persons’ judgement, appealing to the younger members of the bourgeoisie and proletariat whom Brecht wanted to influence (Squiers, p. 52). The paternal parentage of Eilif, Swiss Cheese and Kattrin alienates the actors and the spectators further as they are only identifiable with a certain feature: a name (“Kojocki or Mojocki or something”)(Willett and Brecht, 2006), a characteristic (a drunk, abusive engineer) or a nationality (German.) The lack of detail prevents an emotional attachment to the characters, effectively distancing the spectator from the performance, whilst also forcing an observation and criticism into why such particular information was revealed about the characters.

Acting in epic theatre was not “an expression of an actor’s personal experiences, but rather as supra-individual and thus symptomatic of larger, social contexts” (Balme, 2008, p24). This style of acting is called gestic acting, or Gestus, and supports Brecht’s beliefs that our actions are determined by our socio-historical environment (Counsell, p. 86). Mother Courage’s silent scream in scene 3 is an example of Gestus, as the reaction from the character is unusual. It is a gesture in reaction to the social situation- Courage could not audibly respond to her son’s execution in fear that she would be discovered and executed. The silent scream is ineffective as her emotion was not However, Barthes (1967) states that “the detail of the Gestus also has a political meaning” (p.45), which suggests that the silent scream represents the repression experienced by the lower and middle classes who cannot voice their opinions and emotions in society.

Alienation was not only achieved through performance skills “but also by the music (choruses, songs) and the setting (placards, film etc)” (Brecht, 1936, cited in Drain, p. 114). The use of song in Mother Courage reveals the key influences of epic theatre due to its continuation and support of the alienation effect. The songs in ‘Mother Courage’ were not just used to relay further information about the characters or scene, but to also “comment and reflect on figures, events or themes” (Barnett, 2015, p. 72). For example, ‘The song of the Girl and the Soldier” in scene 2 was used to describe how Mother Courage dissuaded Eilif from enlisting, but also to reveal the destruction caused by human nature as Brecht was “a “trenchant opponent of war” (Parker, 2014, p.1). ‘The Song of the Hours’ in scene 3 criticises religion, as the Thirty Year’s War was a religious conflict, but also as Brecht wanted to spread Marxist opinions on the damaging impact religion had on the masses (Raines, 2002, p.5), as Brecht was a follower of Marxism (Lunn, 1984, p.75). The songs further alienate spectators by pausing the action on stage and gives them “time to judge and form their opinions regarding the episodes presented to them” (Saikia, 2014, p. 23).

Alienation is further achieved in ‘Mother Courage’ as text detailing the outcome of the scene is relayed before it is performed. This is presented via a narrator, on projections or on placards which would contribute to the fractured narrative structure as the “flow of dramatic action” is interrupted (Gordon,2017).In addition, the foreshadowing of events that would occur in the episode is another form of alienation, as the audience are aware of the how the episode will end and know there is nothing hey can do to change the course of action. This highlights Brecht’s intention to make the audience reflect on the “moral implications of the events” (Squiers, p. 245) presented in the scene, and how they relate to society. These could be interpreted as breaking the fourth wall, which was another technique used in Epic theatre to encourage the audience to become “participants” in the performance (Eddershaw, 2002, p.22)- they participated in the critical observations and analysis of each scene and its message.

Another key component of the distancing effect and thus epic theatre is an episodic narrative structure. Each scene or ‘episode’ is set in a different location and has an individual issue or event that is addressed by its end (Counsell, p. 82). These individual plotlines will contribute to the overall story arc or message of the text, but present different scenarios for the audience to analyse. This is evident in ‘Mother Courage’ as each scene is set in a different location (sometimes even a different country) and different time zone, ranging from the same day (such as scene 11 and 12) or years later (such as scene 2 and 3.) The montage of scenes identifies the infleucne of epic theatre and distinguishes it from the linear narrative structure of dramatic theatre. The audience would be able to see how each ‘episode’ contributed to the final outcome of the plot, and analyse the importance of each decision. Then, they would be able to criticise and judge whether the right choice was made.

Brecht wanted Epic theatre “to show human beings as the product of their specific socio-historical circumstances”(Counsell, p. 86), as this would have supported the political intentions of his new theatre form. Historicisation can be seen as a consequence of verfremdungseffekt, as it alienates the audience by commenting on current social issues using historical contexts or parables [Brecht website thing.] The obvious alienation between the audience and text is evident in the full translated title of the play: Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War (Bloom, 2009, p.28). The comparison between World War II and The Thirty Years’ War allows Brecht to criticise the capitalist exploitation of war (Booker, 2000, p. 87), personifying war profiteering through the actions of Mother Courage. The distancing allows the audience to examine and analyse the present more objectively and clearly. The depiction of events necessitated by the Thirty Years’ War would encourage spectators to respond objectively to the current political situation and reflect on the “theme of the devastating effects of a European war and the blindness of anyone hoping to profit by it”(Willet, 1972, p. xi). The episodic narrative enables different areas and attitudes of society and war to be represented, allowing spectators to reflect on multiple different issues throughout the play.

31 August 2020

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